As the third season of HBO’s epic drama series of back-stabbing
ambition and dynastic intrigue, “Game of Thrones,” launches on Sunday, it’s just possible that the trace elements of generic fantasy in GoT — a dragon here, some evil sorcery there — could be jettisoned without much impact on the viewer’s pleasure.
When I began reading “A Song of Ice and Fire,” George R.R. Martin’s addictive series of GoT source-novels (five so far), I wondered if there would be anyplace left to go in the category of fantasy fiction once the Chronicles of Westeros have run out. I could turn to serious, tough-minded historical fiction, such as Hilary Mantel’s two novels (so far) about implacable 16th century British political fixer and climber Thomas Cromwell, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Out the Body.” (In fairness, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie get mentioned fairly often when fans are groping for the names of Martin’s few peers in the field.)
This is what “Guardian” writer Tom Holland is driving at in his excellent article about the multi-national patchwork of blood-drenched Machiavellian scheming, derived mostly from the European middle ages, that Martin draws upon to add depth and weight to his beautifully elaborated fabrications. We’ve heard the echoes of historical events and personages, whether dimly recalled from high school history classes or from the plays of Shakespeare. That’s why the conflicts among the rulers, traitors and pretenders of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms of Westeros ring so sonorously true. (“The War of the Roses” is most commonly cited, but Holland digs up several more – such as the Byzantine Empire’s use of a monstrously incendiary substance called Greek Fire in naval battles against the Arabs.) What’s diabolical is that Martin applies these derivatives from the real past, in layers, to a story that has never been told before. “Imagine watching a drama set in the court of Henry VII,” Holland concludes, “and having absolutely no idea what was due to happen. No wonder ‘Game of Thrones’ has been such a success.”
Some consumers of entertainment will scoff at the notion that plausibility really matters, and they will have a point. Director James L. Brooks’ response to people who make a fetish of visual continuity in movies goes something like this: “The only thing that absolutely has to match from one shot to the next is the expression on the actor’s face.” The most important sort of plausibility for drama, too, is the human or the psychological. At this level, the three good writers behind “Game of Thrones” clearly have an edge on the competition — Martin, obviously, who has the skill to sustain moods of suspense for hundreds of pages at a stretch, but also showrunning writer-producers David Benioff (the excellent novelist of “The 25th Hour” and “City of Thieves”) and D.B. Weiss (whose novel is called “Lucky Wonder Boy”).
The first episode of GoT3, “Valar Dohaeris,” written by Weiss and Benioff and directed by “Deadwood” and “Six Feet Under” veteran Daniel Minahan, is a perfectly calibrated masterclass demonstration of how well these showrunners understand the material, its pull and its rhythms, and the patient dedication of the audience they have summoned to join them around the campfire. As spectacle the show is as impressive as ever. If anything it looks richer, more crowded with movement, than it ever has before. There are some gorgeous painterly shots of massed crows and ornate interiors that could be images of the Middle Ages as re-imagined by an Orientalizing 19th century painter. And for spice there are a few sudden glimpses of brutality and nudity. But by and large the episode consists of a succession of two-person dialog scenes, in which pairs of gifted actors, playing characters whose back stories we’ve come to know intimately over two years and many hours of rapt attention, confront each other in scenes bristling with tension, in every one of of which something crucial is at stake. Here’s:
- Kit Harington as Jon Snow, the brooding Bastard of Winterfell, now operating essentially as a deep cover agent, a mole among the Wildings, facing down Ciarán Hinds’ effortlessly commanding Mance Rayder, self-styled King Beyond the Wall. Like Snow a former officer of the Black Watch, Rayder is the man he must convince of his dark-hearted bonafides as a turncoat.
- Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who visibly knows better but just can’t help himself, approaching his adamantine old man, Tywin (Charles Dance), who has forced his son to come begging for the reward he knows he deserves for saving King’s Landing at the end of Season Two with a hellish incendiary ambush.
- Liam Cunningham’s battered former smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth, rescued from shipwreck on a rock in Blackwater Bay, attempting to wrest control of the defeated leader he still admires, Stephen Dillane’s Stannis Baratheon, from the clutches of the apocalyptic religion embodied by Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a femme fatale of world-destroying potency.
- Daenerys Tagaryen (Emilia Clarke), every inch the Mother of Dragons, heir to the throne that was usurped generations ago, revealing herself to be a ferocious humanist at heart in a dispute with her admirer and bodyguard Jorah Mormont (staunch and mellifluous Iain Glenn), over, of all things, the issue of slavery. Daenerys balks at purchasing a ready-made army comprised of thousands of the Unsullied, highly-trained eunuch warriors produced as commodities for sale in massive training camps, so smooth-surfaced and robotically brainwashed that they seem soulless.
In part it is precisely the brutal realism of this show that has taught us how to savor a daring, slow-fuse episode like this one. We understand that the undercurrent of menace in these scenes is no idle threat. The rendering down of often much longer passages from the book is artfully done, which for a story geek like me is a pleasure in itself. Especially apt is the decision to streamline a major plot thread by giving Aidan Gillen’s watchful manipulator Petyr Baelish (the Guardian’s pick as the series’ Cromwell equivalent) an earlier and more central association with the gnawing ambition of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) to slip the clutches of the evil, incestuous Lannisters.
The novel on which Season Three is based, “A Storm of Swords,” is generally regarded as the strongest of the first five, and it is certainly packed with plot, whiplash reversals to rival anything that’s come before. I’ve been gleefully warning people who haven’t read it to hold onto their hats, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. What we’ve learned is that, for Martin and his adapters, the most startling twists are never just arbitrary shocks. They grow out of a sense of the way the world works that may be grim, but is never less than completely plausible, in this all-too real world that happens to have dragons.